WASHINGTON — President Obama is putting his chips on guns.
It wasn’t an issue he campaigned on — actually, it was almost the opposite of that. It did more to grab him than he did to grab it.
But a month after the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook, the president has positioned himself to take on a fight with long odds as his biggest domestic-policy initiative this side of the never-ending fiscal fights.
The valuable run-up to the inauguration — traditionally a White House’s best chance to put forward a bold new policy initiative — is being dominated by the polarizing debate over gun control. The coming fight has broad implications on virtually every other Washington priority in 2013 and beyond.
Vice President Joe Biden’s guns task force is strongly signaling recommending a robust menu of policy options, spanning executive actions and legislative initiatives. Each piece is sure to require the full force of presidential leadership to turn into action.
“The public demands we speak to it,” Biden said last week, referencing the emotions that followed a tragedy involving young children.
It may yet be a solid bet that this moment is different than past shootings. Powerful allies including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are lending their considerable political weight to the efforts, prodding action along.
Already, the fact that Washington hasn’t lost interest bodes well for a major legislative push that includes more background checks and a renewed assault weapons ban.
But the gun lobby has been explicit that it won’t be giving in. The fight will consume valuable political oxygen, perhaps all of what’s available to a reelected president whose party controls only half of Capitol Hill.
That means other ambitious subject areas — immigration reform, energy and environmental policy, a major infrastructure initiative — will have to wait. Moreover, the coming brinksmanship over spending and budget issues could further poison the chances of action, potentially grinding Washington to an effective halt.
President George W. Bush found out the hard way that political capital doesn’t last long into a second term, even if the president tries to spend it with a friendly Congress. Bush’s push for Social Security reform not only went nowhere, it helped sow the seeds of the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.
This fight over guns has the potential to be more than that for Obama, though. After a campaign devoid of much inspiration, a passionate debate that gets to the heart of the nation’s culture may be what the recently reelected president needs.
The fight will mobilize and energize those on both sides — even if it tires everyone out before discussions begin in other areas.
But if the president walks away with something substantial, at the very time that major progress on any front is so illusory in Washington, the moment won’t have been wasted.